Baby Boomer Breakup: ‘Gray Divorce’ and Adult Children

adult-woman-with-sad-mother-0626134It is an interesting phenomenon: The divorce rate for people 50 years and older, the “baby boomer” generation, is increasing at a higher rate than the younger generations. According to a study at Bowling Green State University, one in 10 people who got divorced in 1990 were 50 years or older; in 2009, that number had changed to one in four, representing more than 600,000 people (Brown & Lin, 2012).

During the baby boom years of 1946 and 1964, an estimated 76 million babies were born. Today, those babies are between the ages of 49 and 67. And now they are getting divorced — sometimes, multiple times.

Baby boomers grew up in the post-World War II culture in which husbands were the breadwinners of the family, and wives were the homemakers who raised the children. The emphasis was on marriage, while divorce carried a stigma. In 1950, the marriage rate of women was approximately 90%, as compared to 2010, when the marriage rate was a little over 30% (Cruz, 2013).

Stigma No More

While the marriage rate has dropped significantly, and the rate of divorce has been holding steady in the under-50 age group, the rate of “gray divorce” is decidedly on the rise. Sociologists suggest a mixture of possible explanations. One factor is the attitudinal change society has toward divorce. The stigma has all but evaporated.

Also, whereas in the 1950s, marriages were focused on fulfilling family roles, today men and women are significantly more focused on self-fulfillment. If there is emptiness in the marriage, the desire to find life meaning may come at the expense of uncoupling — even after decades of marriage. Increased longevity and healthy lifestyles make it possible for starting a new life, no matter the life stage. And then, of course, there is the familiar explanation of waiting until the children are grown.

Divorce is fraught with ambiguities and strong feelings. This may be especially true when a marriage of many years breaks up. Varying emotions include feelings of loss and loneliness, fear of aging alone, feelings of abandonment, and more. There are all kinds of details to work out, such as finances, dissolution of shared property, alimony, division of household items, and family photo albums.

Caring for the Kids

When children are young, parenting plans are included in the divorce agreement. The well-being of dependent children is a priority. In fact, concern about the impact of divorce often sways a decision to stay together until the children are grown and independent. Parents do not want to create emotional pain, and waiting until the children are adults is often presumed to soften distress. But is waiting really easier on adult children?

Implied in this line of thought is that adult children are minimally impacted by their parents’ divorce. There might be a brief period of adjustment, but there is the assumption that “they will be just fine.” But how grounded is this line of thinking?

The answer: Not very. Adult children do not have built-in immunity to the impact of their formative family breaking up. Adult children are no more prepared for parental divorce than younger children (Fintushel & Hillard, 1991). No matter the age of the child, it is always shocking to hear the family is dissolving. Assuming that adult children are old enough to see their parents’ divorce coming may be to provide a false sense of comfort.

A more true-to-life narrative is recognizing that adult children are generally busy living their own lives and are not focused on the health of their parents’ marriage. And there is an indomitable spirit that may be focused on the good, and unaware of the malaise between parents.

Uncoupling in later life is complicated. So is the impact it has on adult children. There are so many things to think about. With the help of a skilled therapist, divorcing parents can learn strategies and skills to assuage the emotional intensity both parents and children experience. Paradoxically, a feeling of closeness and compassion can emerge for everyone… which, of course, is always a good thing.

References:

  1. Brown, S. L., & Lin, I-Fen (2012). The gray divorce revolution: Rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990-2009. National Center for Family & Marriage Research.
  2. Cruz, J. (2013). Marriage: More than a century of change (FP-13-13). National Center for Family & Marriage Research. Retrieved from ncfmr.bgsu.edu/pdf/family_profiles/file131529.pdf
  3. Fintushel, N., & Hillard, N. (1991). A grief out of season. Little, Brown and Company, Boston: MA.

© Copyright 2013 by Mary Murphy, EdD, therapist in Seattle, WA. All Rights Reserved.

Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org. The preceding article was solely written by the author name above. The view and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Adam Kielich

    June 26th, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    I think we can point to a number of social factors that encourage divorce, especially among marriages in the baby boomer generation. The dissolving stigma around divorce is certainly a key piece but other attitudinal shifts play a role, including shifting ideas about pre-marital sex, the ability for women to find meaningful work with greater equality in the workplace, lessened emphasis on traditional gender roles, greater awareness of domestic violence and so on. All of those components are part of a larger social shift that has taken place over the past 75 years or so.

  • Madeline J

    June 26th, 2013 at 10:43 PM

    My parents got divorced in their 50s.That was 3 years ago and I was 25.Although i had moved out of home and hardly met them once a month,the divorce did trouble me.Knowing that they were together and were ‘there’ for each other provided a sense of security and calmness to me.But now that they were going to separate that made me cringe.I even tried talking them out of it but they insisted and are now divorced.

    I do meet both of them but separately and never together.They never had any major problems when I was younger.So maybe that was a shock.But in any case parents divorcing is not a comfortable news to any person,not even an adult.

  • beck b

    June 27th, 2013 at 4:05 AM

    Oh please! There are adult children who just need to get over themselves. In most situations the parents have stayed together far too long “for the children”. If I knew that my parents had stayed together miserably for this long and they wanted to live their senior years with some happiness, then I say let them divorce in some peace. I wouldn’t want to think that they had continued to stay together and not been happy all because they are trying to keep it together for me. I want them to enjoy their last years, whether that is together or if it has to be apart.

  • Sheri

    July 20th, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    I am recently divorced after almost 25 years of marriage. Initially my idea but something I never want to go through again and unfortunately as I am told over and over “time travel is not an option”. I have 3 girls 18, 22 and 24 and it is affecting them in 3 different way. They need time and understanding. YES they will be ok and so will the divorcing parents but this was not their idea so in the beginning it is them who need care and understanding.

  • TrustMattersMost

    October 8th, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    As a lawyer, I think another big reason why gray divorce is such a huge trend is because of the greater financial independence women have achieved since many households have had both spouses working even with children at home. Women are more financially equipped to seek a divorce later in life and not find themselves impoverished.

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